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This year's Venus Envy art exhibition featured photos of a woman boxing with a mannequin, a decorated outhouse and models wearing a hand-blown glass brassiere. The undergarment was a piece in the show, actually, entitled 286 Crack Pipes.
What Venus Envy did not feature was the multimedia installation of one Chalot Douglas-Book.
Chalot's work was originally accepted for the seventh year of the popular art show -- held this year along the 4100 block of Manchester Avenue -- but it was subsequently disqualified. It wasn't so much that Chalot (pronounced "Charlotte") is a pseudonym, it was that Chalot is a man.
A 56-year-old chiropractor and acupuncturist who practices in Clayton, to be precise. His given name is Bill Russell, and he decided to flout the show's only rule: that exhibitors must be female. The Benton Park resident submitted photos of his work under the name Chalot Douglas-Book, and Venus Envy bit.
"It's a blind jury, and it's on the honor system," says Dianna Lucas, a member of Venus Envy's board of directors and the group's public relations chairwoman. "We don't require a picture [of the exhibitor]."
Russell -- who, for the record, is balding with long gray hair in the back and favors Hawaiian prints -- swears he wasn't being bratty.
"When I originally entered the show, it wasn't to be, you know, 'Ha, I fooled you, I got you.' It was, generally, as a female alter ego. I was perfectly willing to have her in the show, and I wouldn't have brought up her gender if they hadn't."
Only after receiving an anonymous tip did organizers realize that they'd been hoodwinked.
"Someone called and said, 'Google Chalot Douglas-Book and you'll find out what's going on,'" recounts Venus Envy executive director and founder Mallarie Zimmer. "Almost immediately I got an RFT story about an exhibit at Left Bank Books that he had recently."
Zimmer wasted no time in giving Russell the boot. But it was too late to omit Douglas-Book's entry from the show's exhibition catalogue, which had already been sent to press.
Russell's art is fairly well known around St. Louis, having been exhibited at the annual Artica festival and at the now-defunct gallery operated by Commonspace. He regularly glues up "anonymous public art" on vacant buildings around town. In addition to his doctor of chiropractic degree, he says he holds two graduate degrees in art.
When not exhibiting as Chalot, Russell sometimes operates as Charles Douglas-Book. "He's Chalot's identical twin brother," Russell explains.
"One of the things I'm investigating with the whole Charles/Chalot thing is how art is looked at differently when it's perceived to be done by a male or a female," the artist elaborates. "And I think that's part of what [Venus Envy is] looking at."
Uh...no, says Zimmer.
"We're just interested in exhibiting and supporting and promoting the work of women artists in the area," she says. "It has nothing to do with subject matter or media or style or anything like that."
Though he'd had his invite revoked, Russell turned up at Venus Envy anyway. The afternoon before Friday's show, he hauled an installation -- the piece he'd have shown if he hadn't been disqualified, he says -- to the exhibition site on a trailer, which he chained to a parking meter across the street.
The piece was composed of a wooden frame overlaid with secondhand dresses and photos of Russell's Artica installation, as well as a print of a woman eating a fig. The whole thing was illuminated by Christmas lights that were strung across the trailer's top and connected to a twelve-volt battery.
"As a public exhibition, that gives me the right to express my opinions of what I think is wrong with Venus Envy," Russell says. "If you're gonna use the laws of equal opportunity to your favor when you like them, you can't ignore them when you don't like them. Some of my friends and I feel that if we, as men, had a show and said only men can apply to be in this show, there would be big protests."
Counters Zimmer: "There is a shortage of places for women artists to display their work, so people aren't seeing some of the best art from our region. Women are not equally represented, not only in gallery work but in the visual arts and performing arts as well."
Perhaps owing Venus Envy's popularity -- about 5,000 people attended each of the two previous years, and 112 artists submitted for 49 spots in the show this year -- the exhibit has triggered a backlash. Last year and the year before, "Venus Shmeenus" accepted works from men and women and was held concurrently with Venus Envy. Shmeenus co-founder Laura Tolley says the show is on hiatus.
Russell isn't the first guy with the balls to submit to Venus Envy.
"Last year an artist actually came to us professing to feel guilty about it when his work was accepted," Zimmer recalls. "We responded by saying that we had to disqualify him."
Perhaps the most bizarre twist in the situation is that some of Venus Envy's organizers are friends of Russell. In fact, he attended both nights of the show and could be seen mingling and, apparently, having a fine time.
"I have been friends with Bill Russell for a long time," Lucas says. "I think he's made a pretty decent name for himself locally. I don't know many people I would consider more honorable than him. But I don't understand why, after being a Venus Envy supporter for all these years, he would want to break the one and only rule we have. He's very tuned in to his feminine side, but the criterion for Venus Envy is living your life as a woman. And I don't think Bill would ever want to live his life as a woman."
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